Staff Editorial: The significance of ‘declined to comment’

When University administrators decline to comment, they are sending the community a loud message: GW doesn’t value students’ rights to information.

And that’s a problem.

Every time an administrator decides to withhold information, he or she does far more than simply limit the thoroughness of an article. These denials disrespect the very student body administrators have been hired to serve.

Earlier this semester, the University launched an online referral system to support students experiencing crises. This system is extremely laudable, and it demonstrates how the University is working to improve its existing mental health support system for students.

Yet Helen Cannaday Saulny, associate vice president and dean of student academic success, declined to provide basic information about the service, such as how the pilot program was modified, or protocol for when a student does not respond to e-mails or calls from the system.

Worse, Saulny declined to comment on whether or not the University would use the information gathered from the CARE system for disciplinary action. And while a different administrator provided an answer to that question – it’s no – GW only released it after being told that Saulny’s decline to comment would be included in this editorial. These basic, crucial facts should have been explained right away. There is no excuse why it was not included. No party-line can explain it this decision away. It was purely a commitment to reticence.

This is especially concerning because of the University’s poor record on mental health issues. A student was suspended from GW in 2006 after he sought treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts. Because of this history, the University needed to be extra candid about their plans for these records.

Last month, the University released a survey that claimed student satisfaction for J Street increased 11 percent. But University spokeswoman Jill Sankey declined to provide any contextual information, such as overall satisfaction.

There is absolutely no reason the University should have withheld more information on this survey. Student satisfaction for dining is “up,” but from what?

If dining is improving on campus and the University is continuing to make fixes to the current system, the community should be engaged in a dialogue with administration about it. Clamping down on information puts an end to these conversations that would ultimately benefit student life – an end goal the entire community should be working toward.

At the very beginning of the school year, the University Counseling Center decided to overhaul its fee structure and allow students to have six free counseling sessions. Former UCC Director John Dages expressed concern that it might constrain the center’s budget.

Months later, the Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine has declined to provide information on the center’s financial status.

The University has also repeatedly denied any information regarding the ongoing UCC review. And while it should not necessarily be expected that the University provide every single detail of the review immediately, it is inexcusable that so much information was withheld on an issue essential to student health and well-being.

But the fact that the University continually declines to comment is indicative of a larger, more troubling trend throughout the administration. There seems to be a culture pervading the University that promotes secrecy and belittles the importance of sharing information. In other words, we go to a school where administration prioritizes image over openness.

That has long-term implications for the relationship and sense of trust between students and the institution. And that’s certainly something the administration can’t want.

It is unrealistic to ask the University to provide every piece of information to the community. But as consumers and stakeholders, it is ridiculous that students are continually denied basic facts and information even when they seek it out.

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